In just the last few years, Europe has seen a landmark law for online privacy taking effect, sweeping regulations to curb the dominance of tech giants and on Friday a new law on protecting its citizens from harmful online content.
For those keeping score, that is: Europe: three. United States: zero.
The United States may be the birthplace of the iPhone and the most widely used search engine and social network, and it may also bring the world into the so-called metaverse. But tech regulations on global leadership are taking place more than 3,000 miles from Washington, by European leaders representing 27 nations with 24 languages, who have been nonetheless able to agree on basic online protections for their 450 million or so citizens.
In the United States, Congress has not passed a single piece of comprehensive regulation to protect Internet consumers and rein in the power of its technology giants.
It ‘s not for lack of trying. Over 25 years, dozens of federal privacy bills have been proposed and then eventually dropped without bipartisan support. With every major hack of a bank or retailer, lawmakers have introduced data breaches and security bills, all of which have withered on the vine. A flurry of speech bills sunk into the quicksand of partisan disagreements over the expression of freedoms. And antitrust bills to curtail the power of Apple, Amazon, Google and Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, have sat in limbo amid fierce lobbying opposition.
Only two narrow federal tech laws have been enacted – one for the privacy of children and the other for sex-trafficking content – in the past 25 years.
“Inertia is too kind a word to describe what happened in the United States; There has been a lack of courage and understanding of the problem and technologies, “said Jeffrey Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a public interest group. “And consumers are left with no protections here and lots of confusion.”
The prospects that any legislation will pass imminently are dim, though regulations at some point are almost inevitable because of the way tech touches so many aspects of life. Of all the proposals currently in the front of Congress, an antitrust bill that would have barred Apple, Alphabet and Amazon from promoting their own products over their marketplaces and app stores over their rivals has the best shot.
A co-author of the bill, Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat of Minnesota, said Democratic leaders had promised it would go to the polls this summer. But even that bill, with bipartisan support, faces an uphill climb amid so many other priorities in Congress and a fierce tech lobbying effort to defeat it.
If history is a guide, the US tech regulation toward the path will be long. It took decades of public anger to regulate the railroads through the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887. It took more than 50 years for the first medical reports on the dangers of cigarettes to regulate.
There is no single reason for the sludge of progress in Congress. Proposals have been caught in the age-old partisan divide over how to protect consumers while also encouraging the growth of business. Then there are hundreds of tech lobbyists who block legislation that could dampen their profits. Lawmakers also have at times failed to grasp the technologies they are trying to regulate, turning their public foibles over tech into internet memes.
Tech companies have taken advantage of that knowledge blind spot, said Tom Wheeler, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
“It’s what I call the ‘big con,’ where tech companies spin a story that they’re doing magic and that if Washington touches their companies with regulations they’ll be responsible for breaking that magic,” he said.
In the federal regulations of the vacuum, states have created a patchwork of tech rules instead. California, Virginia, Utah and Colorado have adopted their own privacy laws. Florida and Texas have passed social media lawsuits for censoring conservative views on punishing internet platforms.
Amazon, Alphabet, Apple, Meta and Microsoft said they supported federal regulations. But when pressed, some of them have had to fight for the most permissive versions of the laws that have been under consideration. Meta, for example, has pushed for weaker federal privacy legislation that would override stronger laws in the states.
Tech’s lobbying power is on full display now with Washington threatening the antitrust bill from Ms. Klobuchar and Senator Charles E. Grassley, a Republican of Iowa. The proposal passed its first hurdle in January, much to the tech industry’s surprise.
In response, many of the tech companies mobilized to defeat the bill in a massive lobbying and marketing campaign. Through a trade group, Amazon claimed in television and newspaper ads that the bill would effectively end its prime membership program. Kent Walker, Google’s chief legal officer, posted a blog post that said the legislation would “break” popular products and prevent the company from displaying Google maps in search results.
Ms. Klobuchar said the companies’ claims were hyperbole. She warned that by fighting the proposal, tech companies might be choosing the two most difficult options.
“They are letting Europe set the agenda on internet regulation,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “At least we listened to everyone’s concerns and modified our bill.”
The inaction may appear surprising given that Republicans and Democrats are ostensibly locked in step over how tech companies have morphed into global powerhouses.
“Consumers need confidence that their data is protected, and businesses need to know they can keep innovating while complying with a strong, workable national privacy standard,” said Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi. “The US can’t afford cede leadership on this issue.”
Lawmakers also have forced many tech chief executives – including Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Sundar Pichai of Google and Mark Zuckerberg of Meta – to testify multiple times before in Congress in recent years. In some of those televised hearings, lawmakers of both parties have told the executives that their companies – with a combined $ 6.4 trillion in market value – are not above government or public accountability.
“Some of these companies are countries, not companies,” Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, said in a January antitrust hearing, adding that they are “killing fields for the truth.”
But so far, the talk has not been translated into new laws. The path to privacy regulations provides the clearest case study on that record of inaction.
Since 1995, Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, has introduced a dozen privacy bills for internet service providers, drones and third-party data brokers. In 2018, the year Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation took effect, it proposed a bill requiring a consumer’s permission to share or sell data.
Mr. Markey also tried to update and strengthen privacy legislation for you following his 1998 law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
With every effort, industry lobbying groups have denounced the bills as harmful to innovation. Many Republican lawmakers have opposed the proposals, saying they don’t balance the needs of businesses.
“Big tech sees data as dollar signs, so for decades they’ve bankrolled industry lobbyists to help them evade accountability,” Mr. Markey said. “We’ve reached a breaking point.”